Just as Mexico has regional culinary traditions — Oaxacan, Sonoran, Sinaloan, and so many more — los Estados Unidos has its own distinct Mexican cuisines. Many aficionados of Mexican food consider the signatures of these unique American Mexican foodways to be minor travesties of taste and inauthenticity — Tex-Mex? Walking tacos? Totchos? Utahn sweet pork? — unworthy of discussion alongside the taco trucks of Los Angeles, the barbacoa of South Texas, or the Sonoran hot dogs of Tucson.
Yet these oft-maligned local styles are the vernacular of Mexican-American food — arising organically out of particular communities or circumstances, they are how many Americans come by Mexican dishes, day in and day out. And like their thoroughly assimilated and disseminated culinary ancestors — chili, Taco Bell, nachos, fajitas — these regional specialties, from the Mission burrito to the hot tamale, are no less legitimate or delicious than their more exalted counterparts.
This map and the glossary below highlight just some hallmark regional dishes that make up the United States of Mexican Food — what they are, where they come from, and where you can eat them across the U.S. Like any map of a new world, one should expect it to be out of date in a few years — who knows what dish will conquer America next?
Range: American South into the Rust Belt
What: Arroz con pollo — not the traditional Caribbean or South American style, but simply grilled chicken breast and rice, covered in a cheese sauce
Origins: This permutation of “arroz con pollo” dates back to the Mexican Inn in Fort Worth, Texas, which had ACP on the menu as early as the 1930s. After existing on the peripheries of Tex-Mex through the 1980s, it fell off menus in the midst of the fajitas wave. It’s now ubiquitous in the South and Midwest as a staple in restaurants run by immigrants from San José de la Paz, Jalisco, who own over 700 restaurants throughout the region.
Range: Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico through the Texas Panhandle into Arkansas
What: Fried triangles of dough dusted in cinnamon or sugar, and presented as dessert alongside honey
Origins: Sopaipillas in both savory and sweet forms reign throughout New Mexico. In the rest of the American Southwest, however, they’re almost exclusively a dessert; the spread of Tex-Mex through the Lower Midwest ensured that sopaipillas became a staple of Mexican restaurants in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Range: Mississippi Delta
What: Small tamales made with cornmeal soaked in chile powder to give them more heat than Mexican-style tamales
Origins: Not even the Southern Foodways Alliance — the grand chronicler of the South’s cuisine — has ever definitively cracked how this most Mexican of meals came to the most Southern part of the South. African Americans have dominated the craft for generations, and iterations of hot tamales also exist throughout Chicago, but particularly on the South Side.
Mexi-Fries / Potato Olés, aka Tater Tots
Range: Pacific Northwest through Upper Midwest
What: Tater tots “seasoned” with “Mexican” flavors (chile powder, cumin) usually eaten as sides, but also stuffed into burritos or tacos
Origins: Tater tots in Mexican food happened gracias to two chains: TacoTime in Oregon, and Taco John’s in Wyoming. The former named them “Mexi-Fries”; the latter calls them “Potato Olés.” Good for them!
Range: Originally San Francisco; now, everywhere
What: Massive burritos made on an assembly line with your choice of ingredients
Origins: At El Faro in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1963, Febronio Ontiveros made an enormous burrito out of two flour tortillas to feed hungry firefighters. The Mission-style burrito went on to influence two gringo favorites: the wraps craze of the 1990s, and the Chipotle chain. El Faro remains in the Ontiveros family but rarely registers in a Bay Area obsessed with its rivals, La Taqueria and El Farolito.
Range: New Mexico and Colorado
What: Burritos drenched in red or green chile
Origins: Burritos covered in salsa are called “wet” in most of the United States and “enchilada-style” in Arizona and Utah, but go by “smothered” in New Mexico and Colorado, land of chile; the earliest known reference to the dish goes back to the late 1960s.
Range: Utah and the Mountain West
What: Braised pork sweetened with a sugary red salsa
Origins: The Cafe Rio Mexican chain in Salt Lake City claims to have invented this take on carnitas — they classify it as “pork barbacoa.” Rival Utah Mexican chain Costa Vida quickly picked it up. Together, the two companies now have nearly 200 outposts across the Mountain West and into Canada.
Range: San Diego/Orange County through Nevada and Arizona
What: Fast-casual Mexican, served in restaurants with names ending in –berto’s or some variant
Origins: Characterized by the same burrito-heavy menu, yellow-and-red color scheme, and names that riff off the –berto’s suffix (Alerto’s, Albertaco’s, Riliberto’s, Alberta’s, etc.), this loose confederation of restaurants is owned mostly by people from the towns of San Juan del Salado and Santo Domingo in San Luis Potosí. The original, Roberto’s Taco Shop, was opened in San Diego in the late 1960s by Roberto Robledo. The other grand jefe was Filiberto Tenorio, who opened his eponymous chain in Mesa, Arizona, in 1993. Wherever you wander into a –berto’s, there will always be a California burrito, a tube stuffed with meat, guacamole, sour cream, and french fries — never rice or beans.
Range: Midwest, especially Iowa through Ohio
What: Also known as a Frito pie, it’s a single-serve bag of Fritos or Doritos topped with chili, taco meat, cheese, and sundry.
Origins: Originally showing up in newspaper articles as a “Walking Taco Salad” in the 1980s, the simple meal (called “chili billies” in Southern California) somehow became an Iowan obsession to the point it’s served at high school cafeterias as a lunch item.
Gustavo Arellano is a features writer at the Los Angeles Times and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.
Naya-Cheyenne is a Miami-raised, Brooklyn-based multimedia illustrator and designer.